LINCOLN, Neb. (DTN) -- Smithfield Packaged Meats Corp. will develop an infectious disease preparedness plan and pay a small fine as part of a settlement with the U.S. Department of Labor, following a citation issued to the company for allegedly not protecting its workers from COVID-19 at its Sioux Falls, South Dakota, pork processing plant.
Smithfield was forced to close the plant for 25 days in spring 2020 in an attempt to contain the spread of COVID-19. By June 16, 2020, 1,294 Smithfield workers had tested positive for COVID-19 and four died, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
Smithfield will pay a $13,494 fine and has agreed to assemble a team of "company and third-party experts" to develop a plan it will implement at all its plants.
To put the potential penalty into perspective, farmers and other landowners who violate the Clean Water Act, for example, can face potential fines of tens of thousands of dollars per day.
"The terms of this settlement are intended to ensure that Smithfield employees receive the training and protective measures necessary to protect them from exposure to the infectious diseases at their facilities," OSHA Regional Administrator Jennifer Rous said in a news release.
"What happened at this facility was tragic, and we must ensure that all steps in the agreement are followed to prevent a mass outbreak from happening again."
The Department of Labor said Smithfield would continue to use its current COVID-19 plan to "reduce employees' exposure to the coronavirus" while developing a new plan.
"Smithfield must evaluate work areas and other areas where employees congregate to minimize employees' potential exposure to infectious diseases," OSHA said in a news release.
"Following development of its infectious disease preparedness plan, Smithfield agreed to review the plan and revise it as necessary to address potential new infectious diseases and guidance from federal, state and local public health authorities, as well as review annual union feedback on the plan and its procedures."
OSHA issued COVID-19 guidelines for the packing industry on April 26, 2020.
Based on a coronavirus-related inspection at the Sioux Falls plant, OSHA cited Smithfield for one violation of the general duty clause for failing to provide a "workplace free from recognized hazards that can cause death or serious harm."
In a statement to DTN, Smithfield said it decided to settle "our dispute with OSHA in a way that admits to no wrongdoing and sets the company up to continue our leadership in infectious disease safety."
Smithfield said it is "undisputed" that in March 2020 the federal government was "discouraging the use of face masks" outside of health care.
"Regardless, at our Sioux Falls and other facilities, Smithfield moved swiftly in the earliest days of the COVID-19 pandemic -- even before receiving direction from health officials -- to implement worker safety measures," the company said.
"The company collaborated with the CDC and OSHA to identify what the industry could do to mitigate the spread of the virus in its facilities. In fact, when public health officials finally released guidance, Smithfield had already implemented almost all of the recommendations. Based on our response and the experience we gained from the early days of the pandemic, Smithfield is well positioned to develop a comprehensive plan. We had planned to do so without prompting from OSHA.
"Smithfield was, and remains, confident that OSHA's allegations of non-compliance with OSHA were baseless and we appealed the citation through proper procedural means. Settling with OSHA and avoiding litigation allows Smithfield to continue the good relations it has with the agency, as we have the shared goal of workplace safety. We are happy to put this behind us and have focused our resources on efforts to vaccinate our entire workforce."
United Food and Commercial Workers Local 304A, the union for nearly 3,000 South Dakota frontline workers, said in a statement the settlement wasn't enough.
"Smithfield workers put their health at risk daily to make sure Americans could feed their families during this pandemic," the union said.
"The Sioux Falls plant experienced one of the most deadly and dangerous COVID-19 outbreaks in the country. Our leaders have a responsibility to protect America's frontline workers who have been bravely putting their lives at risk to keep our country's food supply chain strong throughout this crisis. This deal is nothing more than a slap on the wrist for Smithfield and a deeply troubling betrayal of the men and women who have already sacrificed so much in this pandemic."
Read more on DTN:
"OSHA Cites Smithfield on COVID Response," https://www.dtnpf.com/…
Todd Neeley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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